Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

Whatever happened to Brandy Bell? Troubled times: Last year she was shot twice within five weeks. This year the 14-year-old is dealing with it.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One year ago, she made the news twice.

Brandy Bell was shot by stray bullets on two occasions while standing in virtually the same spot on Lexington Street, outside her home in the Lexington Terrace public housing complex.

On Sept. 23, 1994, a teen-ager opened fire on the street. The bullet grazed her. Five weeks later, Brandy was watching a pick-up football game with friends when a white Cadillac pulled up to the corner of Fremont Avenue and Lexington. A man rolled down the window and fired 10 shots into the crowd. It sounded like firecrackers. Brandy was shot in her right leg.

The bullet remains lodged in her upper leg, and the long-term prognosis is unclear, the newspaper said in October 1994.

It is a fact of life in Baltimore, a fact of life in most cities, that people get shot by stray bullets. But this was different. Brandy Bell was news. Then she stopped being news, and her name went out of print. A year has passed, and there's this pale memory of a girl shot twice while playing in her own neighborhood, shot twice and just 13 years old.

Is she in school? Is she happy? Is she scarred for life or just scarred on her leg?

How is Brandy Bell?

"To me, she's lost," says her great-aunt, Barbara McKinney, who lives two floors up from Brandy in the housing project. "There's got to be some counseling for her."

"We will reach out to her," says Dr. Mark Weist, a clinical psychologist at Southwestern High School, where Brandy is a 10th-grader.

"I do worry about her," says her former elementary teacher, Gwen Martin. "I just want her to know peace."

*

There once was a third-grader from West Baltimore who liked to write letters and stories.

Dear Trentaya,

You is my best friend. You are a very nice little girl. But I want you to stop fussying and fighting. Do you want to be a class clown. You want to get an education. Or you want to be like other children?

Please be good Trentaya for me.

"I saved this because I thought it was so cute," says Ms. Martin, who taught Brandy at Lexington Terrace Elementary. In 1988, Brandy was tall for her age. She had a round face with soft brown eyes. Ms. Martin thought the world of her. Brandy was spunky -- what other teachers might have called mouthy. You always knew what Brandy was feeling because she would surely let you know, her teacher remembers. "She was just so loving and expressive."

Brandy stayed after class to help Ms. Martin tidy up. She $H became one of those rare students teachers keep in their lives years after a school year ends.

"She let me into her life," Ms. Martin says. Brandy's life: "She had a rough time of it, dealing with peer pressure, and just trying to sort out right and wrong."

Please take me back over you mother house, Brandy wrote in red crayon to her teacher. Ms. Martin would take Brandy up to Pennsylvania to visit with Ms. Martin's parents. They'd go to Chocolate World or hiking. Ms. Martin, a Mennonite, also took Brandy to Bible school. Four years ago, Brandy and two friends sang "Glory" and "Celebrate Jesus" at Gwen Martin's wedding.

Ms. Martin had dinner with Brandy a month after the shootings.

"I realized I'm talking to a woman now -- not the little girl I used to know so well. She was all grown up," Ms. Martin says. "And I was shocked to find she seemed to be taking the shootings in stride."

Still, she's concerned about Brandy, the girl who, in fourth grade, took loud exception to her new teacher questioning the class on what they had learned back in the third grade. "Don't you talk bad about Miss Martin!" hollered Brandy.

The girl who, in third grade, loved to write -- especially about Halloween.

October 1988: She was a mean and nasty witche. She comes out at night so she can catch little children and eat them for dinner. She likes little children that are 9 years old. They taste good and make here get fat.

Their mother came and poured the water on the witche and the witche was gone.

*

The view is downright bonny from the 10th floor of the Lexington Terrace housing project in West Baltimore. From Ms. McKinney's two-bedroom, $58 a month (no shower) apartment, she can spy on panoramic Baltimore. Gulls flap up to her windowsill to snatch bread crumbs planted by the tenant.

Brandy's great-aunt has lived here since 1959. She keeps her windows open in the fall, and it's the best of breezes.

"BRANDY!" hollers Ms. McKinney, standing on the fenced balcony on the 10th floor. Brandy has been staying in her aunt's apartment on the eighth floor. Brandy feels close to her mom, who lives here, too. Brandy doesn't know where her father lives, but she sees him around.

"He came to see me after I was shot," she says. "He was there for me."

In this chain-linked community, it's nothing to holler down two flights to grab someone's attention. Even if there was a phone in Brandy's aunt's apartment, there's no need to call Brandy. Just stand on the balcony and let it rip:

"BRANDY! COME ON UP HERE, GIRL."

"She's a more serious child," says Ms. McKinney, relaxing her lungs. "She's not a happy child. Now, she's not a bad child -- she just has low self-esteem."

Talk about the year of living dangerously. Brandy getting shot twice was just so weird, Ms. McKinney says.

How could Brandy not be traumatized walking around with a bullet in her leg?

She's got to get back on track, Ms. McKinney says. Brandy spent the summer and part of this school year hanging out with her friends. "Her brains are all scrambled."

What is on this girl's mind?

"Trouble," her great aunt says.

' "BRANDY? COME ON!"

*

The word these professionals use is counseling, not psychology. Call it psychology and young students think you're calling them crazy.

Dr. Mark Weist directs the University of Maryland's School Mental Health Program, which offers counseling for students in 14 Baltimore city public schools, including Brandy's.

Inner-city kids usually don't have access to mental health services because of lack of money, transportation and knowledge about the profession. So, Dr. Weist and the other counselors are in the schools. They see about 100 kids a year.

He hasn't met Brandy at Southwestern High, but her situation sounds familiar -- except for the part about being shot twice in five weeks.

He counsels many young victims of street violence -- kids who did nothing except stand on some street corner and get mistaken for a drug hit. Naturally, these kids aren't bubbling over with cheer and tranquillity.

"Depression and anxiety are very common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder," Dr. Weist says.

(Post-traumatic stress disorder is usually associated with war veterans.)

Generally, these kids have nightmares, worry about the safety of their family, and "scan their environment for possible threats." The children can feel listless and hopeless and sometimes they drop out of fun or productive activities.

What's the point of trying to improve yourself?

"A lot of kids we work with don't expect to live to young adulthood," says Dr. Weist. "They expect to be harmed."

Stating the obvious cannot be under-stated: It's necessary for the violent incidents to stop so the children can recover from the initial trauma, he says.

It can be said these adaptable kids acquire survival skills beyond their years. But they also can get stuck in a harsh and hopeless time warp.

"What you have to do is get them moving forward again," Dr. Weist says.

Brandy will be moving soon; everybody at Lexington Terrace is leaving.

The city won a $22 million grant to demolish the Lexington Terrace projects come March. The new development will include more than 300 townhouses. But Barbara "Bobbi" McKinney plans to move to an apartment in the 1800 block of Baltimore Street. She plans to take Brandy and other family members with her. "I want my family together."

Before leaving the housing project, Ms. McKinney will stage her last Haunted House on Saturday on the 10th floor "tot lot" of Lexington Terrace.

A funeral home has donated a casket, and Ms. McKinney is gathering black and orange crepe paper to string in the vacant cement playground.

:. She wants to recruit Brandy to be a witch.

*

"BRANDY! COME ON UP, A REPORTER WANTS TO TALK WITH YOU!"

Brandy finally walks up the stairs to the 10th-floor balcony. She turns 15 next month. She is tall, 5-foot-8.

"Yeah, I can play basketball. I got a jump shot."

That's settled.

Now, just passing along that people are worried about you. "I know."

"A lot has been going on," she says, almost whispering, almost explaining herself. The conversation is brief.

Brandy says her right leg only hurts when it rains.

She is back in school, after missing the first month. "I'm going to finish school. I always wanted to go to the University of Maryland at Baltimore."

She says she had fun this year hanging out with friends at the bus stop and at parties. "I don't hang around street corners anymore," Brandy says. "I get scared a lot of time walking. I'm scared a lot."

She looks and seems older than 14. "Everybody tells me that."

She is known in her neighborhood as the girl who got shot twice.

A World War II veteran sent her a note and $20 last year. He said he had been shot in combat and knows how she feels. A woman sent her a pocketbook.

She doesn't want to leave Lexington Terrace.

"I'm going to miss my friends. We've been together for a long time."

Family and teachers are worried about her. But maybe she's fine -- it's hard to say.

Maybe Brandy really is troubled.

"Yeah."

* October 1995: The bullet remains in her upper leg, and the long-term prognosis is unclear.

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